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A Guide To Watching The First Presidential Debate

And by ‘debate,’ we of course mean ‘reality TV adapted for the stage’

It’s finally here. Today’s the day when Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will be forced to stand next to each other in front of a Super Bowl–size audience for nearly two hours while trying not to play an extended game of “stop hitting yourself.” This task will be complicated by the fact that both of them are disliked by a majority of Americans. And, to make things even more interesting, the race has narrowed significantly, which means that there is a real chance that either candidate on stage could win this thing (the presidency, not the debate).

Here’s what we’ll be watching for through our fingers as we hide our faces from the TV screen. You can stream the debate here — it starts at 9 p.m. ET — and fact-check in real time with the help of this.

The Battle of the Overly Expressive Candidates

Clinton and Trump have both been on a debate stage enough at this point that their answers have become somewhat predictable. The Democratic nominee prefers to spin out cautious explanations of policy that don’t promise supporters too much and don’t get anyone too excited. The Republican nominee says whatever he thinks makes him look the most macho at any second, even if it’s not true, and hopes that no one challenges him on it too much.

This is why it is far more fun to watch the person who is not speaking at any given moment during the debates. Trump and Clinton have awful poker faces, and it’s possible to divine entire paragraphs from the faces they make.

Here are a few to look out for:

The Squishy-Face Shrug


It’s a combination of “I dunno” and “Who, me?” Trump often employs it when caught in an apparent lie, but not always, or else it would be permanent.

The Mussolini Frown, a.k.a. “Resting Dictator Face”

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Probably meant to communicate seriousness, this face is vaguely terrifying unless you remember that there is absolutely no thought behind it. If Trump is thinking about anything as he makes this face, he’s thinking about actually making this face. That is how he has spent most of the campaign, and also how he would spend the presidency: thinking about making that face.

And, OK, that’s terrifying.

The “Oh, Wow”

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This face is Clinton’s blank slate when listening to an opponent. It manages to simultaneously convey “I am not impressed” and “We are closer to death than we were at the beginning of this answer.” It is like a live performance of Joan Didion’s response to a very long letter to the editor about a New York Review of Books essay she wrote in 1979. It said, in its entirety, “Oh, wow.”

Emoji Conveyor Belt

If any of the faces Trump is making during the debate look like something on your emoji keyboard, steel yourself: He is about to say something that would probably be the most memorable moment of the debate in any other election year. It won’t be terribly shocking, though, as he responsibly recycles all of his most incendiary expressions.

The “Look Over There” LOL

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When Clinton especially hates a question thrown her way, she usually laughs as a diversionary tactic — “HahaHAha isn’t this so FUN, I’m going to keep laughing until you hopefully forget that you ever asked me a question and just talk about how I’m a progressive that gets things done and — what were you saying?” Look for this to happen if Trump brings up emails, or if she gets asked about the transcript for the speech she gave to Goldman Sachs.

The “Oops, I Farted or Said Something Sexist”

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Here Are the Words and Phrases Both Candidates Will Overuse

Both candidates have been busy prepping for the debate. Clinton has spent weeks getting insulted by her chosen fake Trump, so she’s ready for any predictably awful things he might say, while Trump’s team is trying to convince everyone that he has done no prep whatsoever so he can impress the audience by simply managing to string words together into a sentence.

There are sure to be words that Clinton and Trump both want to make sure the audience remembers. It’s pretty easy to tell which ones Trump thinks are most important, as he over-enunciates them so intensely that he looks like a dog with peanut butter stuck on the roof of its mouth. Here are some of the words we’re likely to hear over and over again — we’ll let you decide which one goes with which candidate!

— Temperament

— China

— Islamic terror

— Great

— Polls

— Children

— Prepared

— Strength

— Danger

— Politically correct

— Hate

And Now for a Word From Our Sponsors

Trump will be in front of his biggest audience ever at the debate. It seems likely that he will try to use this attention as free publicity for his brand — as he did only a week ago at the birtherism press conference that turned out to just be an informercial about his new D.C. hotel. Or that time he held an event surrounded by Trump Steaks. Or any of the times he did campaign stuff at his own businesses.

Anyway! He’s sure to do some product placement — the only question is what he’ll choose to push. Will he talk up Trump: The Game? Or will he use this unprecedented attention to debut new Trump swag? Will he prove he’s fighting for a more nostalgic America by selling headphones with — gasp — a cord? Will he unveil his own revolutionary TrollCycle exercise DVD that offers his patented workout: an hour of moving your hands wildly while constantly opening and closing your mouth?

A Glossary of Words That Will Get Used After the Debate


In 1960, JFK and Richard Nixon took part in the first televised debate. Kennedy looked ready to steal away all the rom-com jobs from early-aughts Matthew McConaughey. Nixon looked like crap. Guess who everyone thought won?

The same logic has been used to judge debates ever since. It doesn’t matter which person sounds smarter. It only matters who looks the best while stringing words together. The rules for choosing a winner are not ironclad, however. People who support a candidate already will probably say that candidate won. “Winner” could just mean “the last person who said something clever because that’s the thing that’s freshest in my mind,” or “the person who practiced one memorable joke over and over again and found the exact right place to say it.” The winner can also be the person who outperformed expectations the most — even if said expectations were incredibly low.


Another highly subjective measure of debate success that depends on your preexisting feelings about the candidate. The loser is the person you already disliked before the debate, or the person who did not surpass expectations. You can only have one debate winner, but everyone can be a debate loser.


The candidates will be rated by how “presidential” they look. Wearing a powdered white wig is the easiest way to do this. Being a man helps, but if you are a woman, you have to smile or you aren’t qualified.

Expectations Game

The use of this phrase is a sign that the person using it is unserious and should be ignored completely ... unless it’s employed sarcastically to indicate that the media set the bar so low for Trump that he could literally soil himself on stage and would still be declared to have had a “good night” as long as he didn’t also throw it at the audience like an angry monkey.

Policy? Did Someone Say “Policy”?

There will probably not be much policy discussed at this debate, largely because only one candidate has any actual policies to discuss. Trump has a collection of word-salad outbursts, salted with hate speech and dressed with ignorance. He can’t be quizzed on specifics because his whole platform is up for debate.

That said, there are some topics that the moderator will bring up. In order of probability (not importance), they are:

— Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment

— Clinton’s email “scandal”

— The supposed “pay-for-play” system at the Clinton Foundation

— Trump’s immigration tantrum/plan

— Trump’s ties to Russia

— Trump’s “outreach” to the black community